Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Summer 1999

URLs in this document have been updated. Links enclosed in {curly brackets} have been changed. If a replacement link was located, the new URL was added and the link is active; if a new site could not be identified, the broken link was removed.

Using the Web to Teach Library Research Skills in Introductory Biology: A Collaboration Between Faculty and Librarians

Colin Orians, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Biology
Tufts University
Medford, MA 02155

Laurie Sabol
Instruction Coordinator
Tisch Library
Tufts University
Medford, MA 02155


Web-based instruction is an effective way, if used correctly, to teach students how to use library resources. In this article we describe a collaboration between the Department of Biology and the Library to develop such a web site for introductory biology. Our goals were to develop early in the students' careers library research skills, to show that such skills are necessary for effective scientific communication, and to provide students with varied backgrounds the skills to independently identify, locate, evaluate and use the library's resources. In addition to describing the site, we discuss ongoing changes to the web site and to the course that have improved its effectiveness. Student evaluations suggest we have met our goals, and colleagues have used the site as a foundation for the development of a more advanced site.


"Excuse me, can you tell me how to find information on, uh, the reproductive behavior of crickets?" asks a student. Unfortunately for professors and librarians, this type of question has an all too familiar ring. It is especially distressing when such questions come from juniors and seniors. Here at Tufts University, the Department of Biology and the Tisch Library are collaborating to address this problem. In 1995, Colin Orians was hired by Tufts University to develop a laboratory program for the Department of Biology's second semester introductory biology course. Orians believes that teaching library research skills should be an integral part of the introductory lab program, as these skills are required in most upper level courses and for advanced study. Therefore, Orians approached Laurie Sabol, the instruction coordinator for the library, to develop a plan for teaching students research fundamentals. This paper describes our collaboration and invites interested parties to explore our web site [{http://ase.tufts.edu/biology/courses/bio14/}]. There are three components to this article. First, we describe our goals and the challenges that faced us. Second, we present a brief history of our collaboration and a description of the web site. Finally, we describe the reactions of the students to our approach and discuss our current efforts.

Goals and Challenges

Pedagogically, we had three primary goals: 1) to develop early in the students' careers life-long library research skills, 2) to show that library research skills are necessary for effective scientific communication, and 3) to emphasize that science is not done in a vacuum. Rather, it is our premise that science advances only by putting one's own ideas and work into a broader context. A careful reading of the literature is required to establish such a context. Our more specific goals were to provide students -- with varied backgrounds -- the skills to identify, locate, evaluate and use the library's resources independently. Because requiring students to communicate their ideas promotes learning (Ambron 1987; Holyoak 1988; Moore 1994), we combined library instruction with a practical written assignment. We also knew that many students take the path of least resistance and would not take the work as seriously if they were not held accountable; thus the assignment that we developed is worth 10% of their lab grade. We believe this exercise establishes a foundation from which the students can build and excel.

These goals are not unique. Earlham College, for example, has a long history of integrating library research with classroom learning (Kirk 1978). Many of our colleagues require students to use library resources when writing papers or giving oral presentations (but not enough instructors take the time to teach research skills, believing these skills are learned elsewhere or are so easy to pick up that time shouldn't be taken in class). Furthermore, Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) programs are common on college and university campuses. Despite these efforts we believe our approach, the integration of web-based instruction and exploration with library research and writing, is new and especially relevant in this era of rapid technological change. Not only are the current electronic resources constantly being revised but new resources are continuously coming on line. During the past year alone Tufts University has added a web-based version of Biological Abstracts, Science Citation Index, Cambridge Scientific Abstracts and more.

There are numerous challenges to effective library instruction (Kaplowitz & Contini 1998). First, how do you convince students to appreciate the importance of attaining library skills? Second, how do you provide information without overwhelming students with the sheer volume of information? Third, how can you effectively instruct students who differ dramatically in their library skills? Fourth, when class sizes are large (we have over 300 in our introductory biology class), how can you logistically provide effective instruction? Our approach to library instruction limits information overload, allows students to work at their own pace, is amenable to large classroom instruction, provides students the opportunity to meet directly with librarians, and can be easily updated as new resources are available. The independent learning built into the design encourages acceptance on the part of the students.

History of Our Collaboration

During the first year (Spring 1996) of the lab program we provided traditional, lecture based instruction to the students. Several librarians, armed with handouts and reference materials, visited the Biology Department each day of lab and gave a two-hour presentation consisting of lectures and computer demonstrations. Using current library instruction strategies, we built searches of the catalog, primary materials, reference materials, and Internet resources. After the presentation, the students worked in groups to identify sources on a topic assigned to them, did the research, and wrote up their findings. Judging from the faces of the students in the classes, the fact that during the presentation numerous students were using their computers for other activities, the quality of their write-ups, and the evaluations at the end of the term, it was apparent that we had not met with great success.

Even with the less-than-perfect experience the first year, none of us was daunted. Sabol and Orians were especially in favor of seeing the library-biology department partnership continue. Bolstered, or possibly alarmed, by the fact that the number of students would increase by 100% (only half of the introductory biology students took the lab during its first year) we developed new goals:

  1. closer contact with the prevailing technology,
  2. learning, not rote spewing of information that had been introduced in class,
  3. allowing students to learn at their own pace,
  4. providing a resource that can be referred to at any time from anywhere, and
  5. requiring a more comprehensive write-up (a one-page paper using library resources on any topic related to the course).

These goals made the development of a web site necessary. The site would include instructions for the assignment, introduction to library resources, library search strategies, and active links to the databases available at Tufts.

Designing the web site involved a task force of five: Sabol and the two other reference librarians who presented the instruction the first year, an HTML expert, and Orians. We spent several months planning and ended up with a site that satisfied us.

The following is a brief description of the current site ({http://ase.tufts.edu/biology/courses/bio14/}). The site provides students with:

The guidelines pages of the site are critical to a systematic approach to research. We start by offering students ideas for preparing their topic (PREPARE section). This section includes suggestions for finding and developing a topic and a description of the relationships among different types of resources (the cycle of scientific literature). It is important that students understand the variety of resources available and their connections (Kirk 1978). The next section (EXPLORE) introduces the library's resources and strategies for using them, describing in more detail the similarities and differences among four types of resources: Reference, Secondary Literature, Primary Literature and Web. For each type of resource we provide a brief overview, a selected list of materials available at Tufts and strategies for searching efficiently. Sample searches are provided to illustrate strategies such as truncation, limiting, and broadening a search. A feature that is particularly effective is the presence of active links to the Tufts catalog and databases. This feature allows students to do a search on their topic without exiting the site. We end this section by offering hints on how to evaluate the resources located. Resources vary in quality and authority, and an awareness of this difference improves the ability of students to conduct effective library research (e.g. Sowards 1997). This is especially important since many students use the first source they find rather than the most appropriate one. The final section (REPORT) provides a worksheet that they must complete, a description of the paper that is required (along with specific guidelines, "How to Write a Library Research Paper," for writing the paper), and a reminder of the importance of academic honesty.

In summary, the site was designed to give students the tools for using the library's resources and to emphasize the importance of library research. Later in the term, they were again expected to use the library's resources when writing their lab reports.

Evaluation and Future Directions

This approach has been largely successful. Student responses in 1997 and 1998, the first two years of web-based instruction, were more positive when compared to 1996 (Figure 1). In 1997, several problems emerged. First and foremost, some of the laboratory instructors did not take the time to familiarize themselves with the web site, despite the fact that we met with and introduced them to the site prior to the lab. This frustrated students and librarians alike. Second, some students found themselves getting lost within the site. Third, students complained of having to use so many resources (n=8: two primary, two secondary, two web and two reference sources) in a one-page paper. [The lucky students who took the class in 1998 wrote a three-page paper and only used six sources (two primary, two secondary and two web).]

The following year (Spring 1998) the site was revised, the assignment clarified and expanded, and the laboratory instructors were made to understand how pivotal they were to the success or failure of the assignment. The overall response of the undergraduate students was very positive. At the end of the library exercise, we asked students to complete a brief anonymous questionnaire. Two of the questions and the responses of those students that completed the questionnaire follow:

Do you think this is an effective way to learn the basics of library research?
YES 179
NO 23
If you've attended other library instruction sessions, how does this one rate among them?

Some of the specific comments include:

In addition, the three-page papers were more carefully researched and written than previous assignments. We believe that the combination of library instruction and an assignment that counts toward the student's grade has allowed us to develop their library research and writing skills effectively. Even graduate students and faculty have visited the site to do their own searches.

However, we still were not satisfied for two reasons. First, students told us they still got lost within the site. This past summer we hired a web site designer to help us make navigation more user friendly and to redesign particular pages. This new site has been well received by colleagues and illustrates the importance of adhering to design principles when developing web sites. You can compare the two sites:

OLD: {http://www.tufts.edu/as/biology/classes/library/old.html}
NEW: {http://ase.tufts.edu/biology/courses/bio14/}

Second, a fair number of students still would like to have the opportunity for personalized library instruction. Therefore we plan to offer optional sessions with the library staff in the coming years.

Of course we will never satisfy all students. One student commented that, "I learned how to use computers for library searches in high school." We think the student missed the point. Not only do we continue to develop our own research skills but the rapid pace of technological change demands that instruction be continuously updated. Even students who previously took the course can access this site to see what new technologies are available.

Overall, our approach has numerous advantages; it is a resource that is always available, it limits information overload, it allows students to work at their own pace, it can be updated regularly as new resources are available, and it encourages library research as a way of learning. Kaplowitz & Contini (1998) suggest that despite positive responses of students to their computer assisted instruction, the program was not cost-effective and are questioning whether a revision should be undertaken. We acknowledge that the cost of development is high. However, once web sites like ours are developed such costs could drop for other institutions if they use existing sites as a foundation from which to build. Overall, we feel this approach is warranted. We would like to note that our experience strongly suggests that success depends on close collaboration between faculty and librarians.

Where do we go from here? Based on evaluations from students, library staff, and colleagues at other institutions we have been encouraged to use the web site as a foundation for web sites in other disciplines or for upper level courses. This is coming to a reality. Additional members of the Library and Biology Department have collaborated with help from an endowment to create "A Biologist's Guide to Library Resources" (http://ase.tufts.edu/biology/bguide/). This site is designed for those students enrolled in our advanced courses. We are excited to see our initial efforts used as a foundation for subsequent projects.


Orians would like to thank the faculty and library staff at Earlham College for convincing him of the value of library research as a freshman in college. Many of the ideas presented in the web site are a direct outgrowth of his experiences there. Orians and Sabol give thanks to Regina Raboin, Jean McManus, Mark Humphrey, Zsolt Mark, Ryo Watanabe, colleagues, and students of Bio 14 for their input and assistance during the evolution of this site. The Berger Family Technology Transfer Endowment provided funds for the latest revision of the site.


Ambron, J. 1987. Writing to improve learning in biology. Journal of College Science Teaching 16:263-266.

Holyoak, A.R. 1998. A plan for writing throughout (not just across) the biology curriculum. The American Biology Teacher 60(3):186-190.

Kaplowitz, J. & Contini, J. 1998. Computer-assisted instruction: is it an option for bibliographic instruction in large undergraduate survey classes?. College & Research Libraries 59:19-27.

Kirk, T.G., Jr. 1978. Library Research Guide to Biology. Pierian Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Moore, R. 1994. Writing to learn biology. Journal of College Science Teaching 23(5):289-295.

Sowards, S.W. 1997. "Save the time of the surfer": evaluating web sites for users. Library Hi Tech 15(3-4):155-158.

Figure 1. A comparison of student evaluations of the library instruction unit for traditional lecture-based instruction (1996) and for web-based tutorial (1997 and 1998). Section instructor in all years was Introductory Biology laboratory coordinator, Colin Orians.


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